South of Broad's rendition of Guys and Girls Jr. | Photo by Ruta Smith

Heather Reed’s music training program, SAPC Studios, is looking to extend into musical theater training and productions in the new year. Her idea to accelerate plans stems from frustration at not finding youth theater for her own child.

In the summer, when theater companies seemed prime to return to stages in full force, youth theater was in the cards. Footlight Players, Charleston Stage and South of Broadway all had children’s theater shows planned. PURE Theatre ran a summer youth camp in July that culminated in a successful, unmasked performance of Puffs at the Gaillard. But as COVID cases rose and company plans shifted, youth theater was something that seemed to fall to the wayside.

Footlight Players’ Matilda has been prepped for 20 months | Photo provided

Queen Street Playhouse’s much anticipated Matilda was a major part of the City Paper’s fall arts issue in late August. The show, which was supposed to bow in March 2020 before the pandemic hit, was slated to return in December, which was already a triumphant feat. Students age and grow over time, and some roles were reworked or recast, but most of the original cast was returning for this run. But a few weeks ago, the production disappeared from the Queen Street Playhouse website. It has since been replaced with a new holiday show, A Very Merry Footlight Holiday Special, a family variety show that, unlike Matilda, will neither be headlined by nor cater specifically to children.

Queen Street’s board of directors voted to approve the change a few weeks ago, and in context, it’s an understandable decision. Until a month ago, children 5-12 remained ineligible for vaccination against the coronavirus. With schools’ sometimes-confusing and inconsistent mask policies, keeping consistent with guidelines was like hitting a moving target. And the delta variant spike, which peaked in late August and early September with over 300 cases per day statewide, hit the theater community hard.

After Charleston Stage postponed the opening of Bright Star because of COVID, and without the added protection of having large, dual casts vaccinated, the decision to pause Matilda seemed like a no-brainer.

South of Broadway recently finished a run of Guys and Dolls Jr. | Photos by Ruta Smith

PURE Theatre typically runs several education programs during their season, including an advanced training program for middle and high schoolers that meets at Cannon Street Arts Center and several in-school enrichment programs where PURE Core ensemble members go into classrooms. Both programs are currently on hold. Little Gems, which opened in November, is the first play at the Cannon Street theater since March 2020. And with many schools still maintaining strict visitation codes to limit exposure, PURE’s in-school programs are also currently on hold.

It’s been a tricky feat this fall. Youth theater productions do not have the easiest time navigating around COVID protocols of physical distancing and masks. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done.

South of Broadway just closed its production of Guys and Dolls Jr., forging ahead with the planned show despite the uncertainty and enhanced COVID protocols.

Gould

“When we did Shrek Jr. last April, we had pushback from parents about masks,” said Mary Gould, founding artistic director of South of Broadway. “Some of them complained, especially about the social distancing, which resulted in many fewer tickets for sale. But in the end, everyone was happy we did it.” 

The mask pushback is unsurprising. Young performers typically struggle with volume on stage as they learn to fill a space with their developing voices. Face coverings can make that even harder.

For Guys and Dolls Jr., South of Broadway maintained protocols from earlier this year, including social distancing offstage, masks for performers, staff and audiences, as well as constant cleaning and sanitizing. After the successful run of Guys and Dolls Jr., South of Broadway fully intends to continue with their youth productions in the spring by staging Aladdin Jr. in a new space.

Charleston Stage has also managed to maintain its youth theater programs, albeit with a few shifts. The company’s family series returned in October with a limited run of Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook. It then took the show on the road, rolling out its new CityStage program, where Junie B. Jones toured to four local schools for performances. 

“We thought if schools weren’t allowed field trips during the fall due to COVID and couldn’t come to us for our school matinees, we’d come to them,” said Beth Curley, Charleston Stage’s director of marketing. Charleston Stage usually runs school matinees of its productions, but these were canceled because of the pandemic. 

Charleston Stage’s Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook toured four local schools | Photo provided

Charleston Stage has also kept up its TheatreSchool classes, the actor training program run out of its West Ashley Theatre Center. The demand is there, too — enrollment this fall has been the same as pre-pandemic numbers. Classes were structured around school guidelines, requiring masks for participants. Fall classes just ended, but the company is planning to bring them back this spring, with a new session beginning Jan. 13. Registration is currently open.

COVID cases are dropping, and while figures aren’t as low as the spring, local theater companies continue to hope the spring season will be less chaotic than the fall. This is good news for youth theater. With Charleston having the highest rate of vaccinated residents according to S.C  Department of Health and Environmental Control records (as of mid-November), and vaccine rollout for children opening up across the state, the optimism is returning.

As the calendar turns and the spring brings the second half of this theater season, it appears youth theater will return to the fold. Charleston Stage has plans for TheatreSchool, as well as a production of Charlotte’s Web that organizers are hoping will include school matinees.

Heather Reed is expanding the training programs at SAPC Studios after struggling to find a youth theater for her child | Keller James file photo

Flowertown Players just launched its Winter Production Class for ages 13-18, culminating in a production of Cinderella Feb. 18-20, 2022. PURE Theatre, now back in Cannon Street, looks to bring back its in-house youth company this February and will make strides to return to its in-school programs. And SAPC hopes to enter the conversation with a new theater program.

The future of the arts is in the hands of the next generation. That means inspiration and training, and it means involvement. As things return to normal, theater personnel are encouraged to see youth theater not getting lost in the shuffle. In their eyes, theater for youth, and the opportunity for kids to perform onstage, is a vital tool in carrying Charleston’s theater scene into the future.